To quote the House of Common’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report published a few weeks ago, “these must not be sacrificed on the altar of cheap imports” and “we will hold the Secretary of State to his assurances that there will be no compromise on animal welfare, environmental and food standards”.
British meat producers and processors certainly subscribe to this, so do consumers’ organisations exercised by the totemic scarecrows of chlorine-washed poultry, beef and pork from livestock treated with growth stimulants, and GMO-tainted food.
The question remains whether this principled statement will hold water in a few years from now if and when we engage in bilateral or multilateral negotiations will Third Countries. In practice, this is all about the USA. The country is by far UK’s largest trading partner outside the EU and one we have a healthy trade surplus with.
Let’s face it, we will not negotiate from a position of strength and, in the UK, the Department for International Trade has not been highly forthcoming on the subject. U.S. envoys visiting the UK last year have already given clear signals that agriculture and farming standards will be at the centre of negotiations for, I quote, “an attractive deal”.
This should come as no surprise. Since the Nineteenth Century, farming commodities including meat have made a large part of U.S. exports. Speaking to U.S. and Canadian processors and trade associations, there is still no understanding (or willingness to comprehend) British consumers’ perceptions on the subject of hormones and carcase decontamination. On the other side of the Atlantic, the former is scientifically accepted as a safe whilst the latter is viewed as providing additional meat safety.
How could these two opposite aims, free trade on one hand and “high standards” on the other, be reconciled? In the knowledge of past record, I can foresee a labelling fudge where politicians would invoke consumer choice. For instance, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommends “that the Government improve country of origin labelling” post-Brexit and “that the Government introduce mandatory method of production labelling”.
UK-USA negotiations will open a second battleground with the issue of Geographical Indications / Denominations of Origin (GIs / DOs). Although, a UK consensus exists in retaining these important protections, they are clearly viewed from a U.S. perspective as a trade barrier.
Chairman of U.S. House Sub-Committee on Trade, Dave Reichart, described them as “a significant problem” during the 2016 TTIP negotiations. We are aware that food trade associations are actively lobbying the U.S. for the elimination of such “barriers” in a future trade deal with the UK. In the UK, this represents 22 fresh and processed meat products (including applications), some of which are of great economic importance to the sector such as Cornish pasty and Melton Mowbray pork pie.
The partial or total abandonment of the system would also create additional difficulties for trading with the EU and countries which have concluded trade agreements with the EU.
At this stage, all Brexit options remain open, although the Government states, it wants to retain the ability to negotiate trade agreements post-Brexit with countries outside the EU. Certainly, negotiations with the USA will be arduous. Despite the current assurances from across the political spectrum, the UK meat sector must be ready to reassess its certainties.
Jean-Pierre Garnier is a private meat consultant and a well-known figure in the sector. He previously worked as head of exports at UK levy body Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board.